Two of the most common flooring materials — carpet and vinyl — pose risks to the health of the environment and your home. About 70 percent of floor covering in the United States is carpet, mostly made from nylon [source: Green Living Ideas]. Why is that a problem? Nylon is petroleum-based, so its manufacture represents a tremendous use of non-renewable resources. Carpet also harbors allergens and may contain chemicals that make people sick.
Vinyl, also known as polyvinyl chloride or PVC, is petroleum-based as well, and producing it creates dioxin, a dangerous carcinogen that can create health problems. Neither vinyl nor carpet is biodegradable.
How can you choose flooring that is good for the environment and the home? Several natural flooring materials are available to consumers that are renewable and contain minimal industrial processing. Choosing a green floor can decrease your environmental footprint, as well as reduce levels of toxicity in the home and increase energy efficiency. In this article, we’ll take a look at how to choose the best green floor for your house.
Before selecting any floor, there are a few factors to consider:
- Aesthetics: How will the flooring look in the home?
- Budget: How much will materials and installation set you back? A self-install can offset the higher cost of a flooring material.
- Maintenance: Is it easy to clean? Will it require additional work over its life span?
- Performance: How much wear and tear will this floor see? Do you have children, pets, a rock ‘n’ roll band or lots of spiky shoes? Some floors will withstand increased traffic and loads better than others. Performance also is tied to the function of the room. For example, carpet might not be a good choice for kitchens, bathrooms or basements, which face more moisture than other rooms, but it could be a good option for your living room if you want an extremely comfortable floor for your family gatherings.
Keep these questions in mind as you consider different flooring methods. We’ll start with the issue of aesthetics: Do you like the look of carpet and vinyl but still want to avoid potential hazards to your home and environment? On the next page, we’ll find out if all carpet is harmful, and how to get the look of vinyl naturally.
Green Flooring Options: Carpet and Linoleum
Not all carpet is bad for the environment. Carpet can be made from natural materials, such as wool made from the hair of sheep or llamas. Wool carpet provides an extremely durable, fire-resistant, stain-resistant and hypoallergenic option in comparison to synthetic carpets. This type of flooring is great for high-traffic areas because of its springy fibers, which bounce back naturally after pressure. Wool rugs can be vacuumed, but care should be taken when cleaning with certain chemicals. They look and feel luxurious, but there’s a cost for that luxury: Wool carpeting is significantly more expensive than other carpets.
A less-expensive yet still environmentally friendly option is a rug made from any of several plant fibers. Sisal is a fiber from the leaves of the agave plant that results in durable, easy-to-clean and sound-absorbent flooring. Seagrass is another option. It grows underwater, is inexpensive compared to other plant fibers and is easy to care for. It’s a bit darker, so it might be the best bet to hide dirt tracked in by kids and pets. Jute is the softest plant fiber, but also the least durable and one of the most expensive. Other fibers include abaca, which is a knotty material that’s in the banana family, and coir, which is harvested from coconut husks [source: Green Living Ideas]. Coir dries quickly, making it a good option for a room with moisture, such as a bathroom.
Some people love the rugged texture of plant fibers, but some materials, like sisal, are scratchy, so take the time to feel each one before making a decision. While some of these are available as wall-to-wall options, they’re more commonly area rugs, because they expand and shrink when they get wet.
If plants aren’t your thing, you may want to look at linoleum, a blanket term that includes vinyl flooring. You might not think it, but linoleum is actually a natural product made from linseed oil, cork dust, wood flour, tree resins, ground limestone and pigments [source: Maas]. Natural linoleum costs more than vinyl but lasts 10 to 20 years longer. It’s easily cleaned, although it does require regular waxing. If you scratch linoleum, you can buff out the offending mark, and it works well in kitchens and bathrooms. A few people are sensitive to the smell of linseed oil, however, so spend some time near a linoleum floor before bringing it into your home.
Vibrant colors are one of the hallmarks of natural linoleum; a company named Forbo offers one product called “Marmoleum,” which has the colors of quarried rock, and another product called “Artoleum,” which has bright colors taken from MRI scans [source: Chang]. Natural linoleum can be bought at many home improvement and flooring stores, but because many people think of vinyl and linoleum as synonyms, be sure to check the label to ensure the project is natural. Installing sheet linoleum is tricky, so if you want a do-it-yourself project, it’s probably better to go with linoleum tiles.
Still not enthused about natural flooring materials? We’re not done yet.
Earth and Cork Flooring Options
“Floating on air” is a phrase usually meant to describe euphoric happiness. Corkflooring might be the closest way to literally achieve the state. Cork flooring feels extremely soft because it’s made up of tiny pockets of sealed air. The air pockets hold up over time, so that if you get a dent in the floor, it will eventually spring back up. Cork also absorbs noise and provides good thermal insulation. It’s fairly water resistant, making it a good choice for kitchens and bathrooms. With proper care, cork can last four to five times as long as vinyl flooring [source: Build it Green]. Comparable in cost to hardwoods, cork is one of the easier floorings to self-install, particularly with cork tiles that click into place. The spongy stuff also may have your floating on air because of its environmental friendliness. It’s harvested from the bark of the cork oak tree without harming the tree, and the bark regenerates itself.
Most little kids are told at one point or another not to track dirt from outside on the clean floor. But what if the floor were already made of dirt? A few thousand earthen floors have been installed in the United States, primarily in the West where earthen building methods such as adobe, earthbag and rammed earth are already popular [source: Gelles].
Earthen flooring is made of a mix of clay, sand and lime that’s pressed into the floor. It takes a few weeks to dry, and the floor is sealed with linseed oil and beeswax. The seal makes it water-repellent, so that mopping doesn’t result in a big pile of mud, but earthen floors are still not recommended for rooms that see a lot of moisture, like bathrooms or kitchens.
These floors can cut heating costs because of the good thermal mass provided by the earthen material. Thermal mass measures a material’s ability to hold in heat and radiate it out when the house begins to cool. The method is inexpensive, with earthen floors costing $5 a square foot in comparison to $15 or more per square foot for hardwoods [source: Gelles]. Installation is labor-intensive, and with few contractors experienced in earthen flooring, it will likely be a do-it-yourself project. Whether you like the look of earthen floors will be a matter of personal preference. Some really like how the floor weathers, and one builder compared it to an “old cracked leather couch” [source: Gelles]. However, appreciating the look of old leather means accepting that an earthen floor does crack, dent and scratch easily.
Sustainable Wood Flooring
Does a hardwood floor bring to mind images of a clear-cut forest? There’s an easy way to soothe your environmental conscience. Wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) meets strict criteria related to forest management and ecological concerns. FSC-approved wood is stamped and even has a special number so you can trace it back to the forest it came from. This kind of wood is becoming more available as the number of approved forests increases; about 15.5 million acres of forest were certified in the United States in 2005, up from 1.4 million in 1995 [source: Hughes]. Available woods include most of the kinds that are commonly used for wooden flooring, including oak, cherry and maple, and FSC-approved wood is comparable in cost to other wood.
Most people love the beauty of hardwood floors, which are durable and easy to maintain. However, hardwoods can be noisy if not properly insulated, and they’re easily scratched. Hardwood floors do present cost savings because you can install them yourself.
Bamboo is a giant grass that’s very strong. It’s one of the fastest-growing plants in the world, and it can be harvested every few years, as opposed to the longer life cycles of hardwoods. In addition, the harvest doesn’t affect the roots of the bamboo plant. To create flooring, the hollow rods are sliced into flat strips and treated with preservatives so that they hold together. Installation of bamboo flooring is similar to that of hardwood flooring. Bamboo floors can carry heavy loads and are more durable and resilient than hardwood floors. However, they might be a few dollars more expensive per square foot.
It’s important to check what kinds of preservatives are used to treat bamboo, as they might contain chemicals that result in VOCs. Others have expressed concern that bamboo isn’t harvested in an environmentally responsible manner in some countries. For example, there’s evidence that natural forests have been clear-cut to make way for more bamboo, and bamboo lacks a certification process similar to that of the Forest Stewardship Council.